By Eiko M. Tagore*
The sixty-five-kilometer trip to Konark was expected to take over three hours by the old rickety bus. The bus rumbled along billowing black smoke behind as I wondered whether we would make it safely. Ten minutes into our journey, there were no visible houses and the dry red earth stretched on as far as the eye could see with enormously tall palm trees dotting the way. There were stone stacked Hindu temples with red flags on top signaling the message “Jai Mahaprabhu” (Victory to God).
From a thousand years ago, this region has been important to Hinduism. It is said that at one time there were 7000 Hindu temples here and even now there are at least 1000 such temples. The road stretched on with red earth on both sides. Eventually, we were passing through a tunnel of mango groves. The mango trees were painted white on its thick trunks with numbers indicating their registration by the state of Odisha. Carts pulled by two bulls and a cowherd wearing bright yellow or red turbans sitting behind them with a whip would pass us at times. Carrying goods like earthen pots, agricultural products, bricks, hay by the stacks to the morning markets, bull carts hurried along the roads. The white Brahma bulls with large horns and humpbacks looked so beautiful moving with confidence and stately demeanors.
The arid landscape seen through the window eventually transitioned into a lush green one. Villages with mud huts were surrounded by banana, date palm, and coconut trees. Yielding precious fruits, the more coconut palms a home had, it signified more wealth.
We passed through herds of black and white goats, extended fields of yellow mustard flowers, green fields of grain, black pigs, naked children running about, and farm workers wearing white cotton clothes dotting the fields as we traveled along the roads.
The bus driver stopped to pick up passengers with their hands raised at any location along the road, and at various villages with markets he stopped the bus and took breaks. Both driver and passengers would often get out of the bus to enjoy a cup of chai and chat with familiar faces. Passengers could use this time to attend to their toilet business in the nearby field, often using the village well to wash their hands and face and do a little shopping if needed. Until the driver honked for people to return to the bus, passengers could do as they pleased.
After resting here and there, we finally arrived at Konark more than one hour behind schedule just before noon. I heard from our elders in Calcutta (now Kolkata) that long ago, to go to Konark they traveled through dirt roads cutting through fields and forests by bull cart and even by elephants. Pilgrimages to Konark, leaving in the evening from Cuttack, would often involve greeting the rising moon and moving under the blanket of stars. By the time they would reach Konark, having crossed rivers and valleys, it would be the afternoon of the following day. They would have camped preparing meals along the way. It wouldn’t be uncommon to get lost along the way or spend time fixing a wheel or two on their carts. It must have seemed like an adventure entering new lands. Their devotion and faith kept them moving forward on their pilgrimage. Such were the ways in the past.
Surya Mandir in Konark was right before our eyes upon getting off our bus. Even in January, we were met by the intense heat of the noontime sun reflecting off the sandy ground onto our feet. We passed through the gate of the Sun Temple. Stone stacked walls adorned both sides of the road leading to the temple. These walls were full of carved figures of gods and goddesses. The black pagoda ahead shone brightly under the sun.
Suddenly, a man jumped out of the bushes. He stopped before us and declared, “I am a government certified tour guide. Let me guide you!” “We don’t need a guide, thank you”, my husband replied. The man pointed to his shiny pin and indicated that he is responsible to guide visitors to the temple. “Look at this pin. It’s genuine. For only six rupees, I guarantee you will get a good tour. Just leave it to me!” he insisted.
“Shall we ask him?” I implored my husband. “I’ll even give you a special rate and make it five rupees. I have a free day today.” He chimed in. “Five rupees is pretty expensive since this sign says two rupees for a guided tour right here” my husband pointed to a sign written in Hindi. “This sign was put up years ago! Rates don’t stay the same forever. The rate is now six rupees, Sir. I swear to the Sun Temple gods that this is the truth. I am a certified government guide as this pin indicates,” he declared.
He reached into his breast pocket for a little yellow notebook. The notebook did indeed say “certified Indian government tour guide” in handwritten ink. Seeing that we were still doubtful, he confidently added that he also was once a student of archeology. “Ah, that’s nice! I am also a teacher of archeology”, my husband said stroking his goatee. Upon hearing this, the man seemed to have finally given up.
The Sun Temple in Konark is a stone temple built in the 13th century. It is known for its unique stone construction and as a significant example of Kalinga Hindu architecture. King Narasingha spent 12 years to build the temple in honor of Surya, the sun god. According to some sources, it is thought that King Narasingha, a Hindu, commemorated the victory over Muslim invaders by building the temple. The architecture of the temple is shaped as a chariot and is of a form that is unique from other Hindu temples. The nearly 80 meter-tall black pagoda rises above the temple, and the chariot shaped structure with 24 wheels is led by seven sacred horses. The chariot temple appears as if it had just landed from the heavens. The remains of the temple include the main platform and several of the wheels of the chariot. The deterioration of the structure is thought to be due to the soft ground made of sand in this region. In 1990, twenty years after our first visit, I noticed the temple seemed smaller and even further eroded. Cement repairs were noticeable throughout the temple. However, the sculptures still attract tourists and devotees on pilgrimages from around the world.
The sculptures of Konark, along with the sculptures of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh are world famous. The temple, the pagoda, and the wheels are intricately carved with sculptures of gods and goddesses. There are varied images of heavenly nymphs, men and women, temple dancers, musicians, animals, and plants. The statues of Mithuna depicting the union of man and woman are sacred and thought to be of the gods. Images from the Kama Sutra, the ancient Hindu scriptures of carnal love, are depicted in these sculptures. What appears as pornography in our time, carnal and erotic love was considered sacred in Hindu philosophy as eternal pleasures belonging to the gods. From this perspective, one can understand the deep meaning of the Mithuna sculptures under the sacred sun as being central to life itself. The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore had said upon visiting Konark that, “the eternal workmanship of the artists exists. The temple reflects the good and bad, the greatness and ordinary that exist in life itself. God exists in our soul. In silence, God stands with us through life and death, joy and sorrow, sin and blessings, and salvation and suffering. Man’s life is itself God’s eternal temple.” Day and night the images of the gods and goddesses accept the passions and pains of human life and portray them as the inevitable fate of humanity. They pay homage to and celebrate human passions. Perhaps these images free the observers from ordinary restraints to find joy and happiness.
Konark museum lies about a kilometer away from the temple. There I was impressed by a variety of Kalinga sculptures. The dilapidated pieces had been restored. If one goes another kilometer, there is a rest house located past the cactus covered hills. We had a late lunch there. We saw many long-haired western hippies gathered there without wearing shoes. The rest house was mostly empty except for a few local guests sipping tea. The server who had been idle greeted us promptly and proudly laid out their menus. With his recommendation, we ordered shrimp kofta, and vegetable curry but ended up waiting for more than hour. They must have started preparing the meals only after receiving the order. “At least they’d gone shopping before we came!” my husband said in resignation.
The last bus was ready to leave at the scheduled 6 o’clock. We headed to Bhubaneswar, our bodies shaken all the way back in the old rickety bus. This time the bus driver didn’t stop anywhere for rest and headed straight through the fields. Unlike the hot daytime journey, the evening breeze that blew through the windows felt chilly. With no other lighting, the dark evening sky was filled with stars and the moon rose high into the night. In a distance, the palm trees created a beautiful silhouette against the sky. I felt a sense of joy being embraced by this beautiful place which remains unspoilt through its long history without the blemishes of industrialization. I had not experienced this sense of joy in an urbanized Japan that I was from. I felt the great satisfaction of space and time in India much different from the wealth and joys of modern life. I could find empathy with people that came to India seeking this joy away from their hurried materialistic urban lives.
As I was contemplating this joyful experience, we returned to the hustle and bustle of Bhubaneswar. It was past 9 o’clock but the city was lit up by the lights of markets and crowds of people. I was examining the brassware, shell works, and Odisha handloomed ikat textiles when a cycle-rickshaw stopped right in front of us. “I figured I’d find you here! I was waiting for you at the bus depot but hadn’t seen you!” It was the same cycle-rickshaw driver who had planned to take us back to our retiring room from the bus depot. He had traced us back to the market area where we had gotten off one stop before. “If the fare is one rupee, you can take us, but otherwise, we’ll catch another,” I stated. Without argument, he took us back to the retiring room in the darkness of night.
[This is the third part of a chapter from the famous Japanese book ‘Indo Tambou’ (My Indian Journey) by Eiko M. Tagore, published in 2011. The author is the spouse of late Prof. Sandip Tagore, a 2017 recipient of Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in the field of arts & culture. The English translation is done by her daughter Maya Tagore-Erwin. Eiko M. Tagore currently lives in Osaka, Japan]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.